In Praise of Presidents Who Aren’t Good Family Men
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama clash on nearly every important issue, from taxes to abortion to regulation to climate change. Yet both men adore their families, and they make sure we know it too. Throughout his administration, Obama has made reference to his daughters when defending women’s rights or describing a hopeful vision of the future; and the first endorsement that he received at the Democratic convention was, of course, from his wife, Michelle. Romney, for his part, made sure to effusively praise his wife, Ann, during his own acceptance speech. “Unconditional love is a gift that Ann and I have tried to pass on to our sons and now to our grandchildren,” Romney declared. “All the laws and legislation in the world will never heal this world like the loving hearts and arms of mothers and fathers.”
Voters from both parties clearly expect, even demand, this kind of talk from aspirants to the White House and anyone who becomes the unofficial father of the nation. They implicitly embrace the idea that to be a successful president, a man must have a good marriage and close, harmonious relationships with his progeny.
But based on the historical record, the voters are quite mistaken. In fact, hardly any of our most consequential chief executives would have been able to live up to the current standard of presidential uxoriousness and fond paternity.
Think of the three icons whose miniature, exchangeable portraits you carry around in your wallet. George Washington had no children of his own, and he placed devotion to his work over devotion to his wife; exasperated by all the official dinners she was forced to attend, Martha complained, “I am more like a state prisoner.” Andrew Jackson’s wife Rachel died two weeks after he was elected in 1828; the couple had no offspring. Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were content enough until they moved into the White House. But in 1862, the death, from typhoid, of their young son Willie hurtled both husband and wife into a serious depression. Mary took to visiting spiritualists in order to “talk” to Willie, berated Abe in public when she thought he was flirting with other women, and went on costly shopping sprees in the middle of the Civil War. And that’s not to mention Thomas Jefferson, a widower whose most enduring sexual relationship was probably with one of his slaves.